Coming to Terms with a Family Secret

Bliss Broyard's father took some secrets to his grave. But that didn’t keep her from digging them up. The result was a revelation about him—and herself 

by Bliss Broyard
father and baby daughter image
Photograph: Courtesy of Bliss Broyard

I ended up spending many years contemplating these questions, which culminated in a book about my father’s racial identity and the origins of his seductive nature. While I didn’t necessarily forgive the choices he’d made and their effects on his family and me, I came to understand them better, which made it easier ultimately to forgive him. The truth was, being angry with my father wasn’t getting me anywhere: Anger locked me into a position that didn’t allow for change or growth. Since my father was no longer here to either amend his ways or defend his actions, I had no choice but to alter my own position. And in the process, I returned to the place where I started. Now when I considered his choices, I saw him less as a fraud than as a father, trying to do what he believed best for his children. Having become a parent myself helped me sympathize with his decisions. It also helped me look past my narcissistic belief as a child that everything my parents did necessarily involved me.

There are still things I learned about my dad that sit outside even my revised and expanded sense of him—things that leave me scratching my head and wondering how well I really knew him, what kind of man he’d been. But I no longer seek to reconcile every tender memory of mine with my discovery of unsavory secrets. And in that letting go or letting be is a kind of lesson. If my own husband were to die -unexpectedly—perish the thought—I’m fairly certain I would resist the impulse to search through his personal e-mails and Facebook messages and an old box of his papers in our basement that I suspect might contain photos or letters of girlfriends past. I don’t have a reason to doubt my husband’s fidelity, so it would feel like a violation of our trust to snoop through his things looking for evidence. Also, I don’t feel entitled to illuminate every last corner of his life as I did with my father.

When I imagine my kids conducting such an exhaustive survey of my life one day, I immediately shudder. (Like my father, I married late and did not have children until I was almost 40.) But then I reassure myself that my daughter, who is four, probably won’t idolize me in the way I idolized my dad. Times have changed. In addition to encouraging our kids to be more communicative with us parents, my generation is more communicative about our own imperfections. A strange, macabre memory pops into my head: I remember my mother telling me about transferring my father’s ashes from the crematorium box to an urn that a potter friend had made for their burial. Amid the grainy gray dust were some hard white chunks that wouldn’t pass through the narrow neck of the urn. My mother ended up collecting them in another, wider-mouthed jar that now sits on a shelf in her bedroom. The knowledge that these pieces refused to burn and crumble into bits has always given me an odd comfort—my father’s impenetrable, impervious remains.

BLISS BROYARD is the author of the short story collection My Father, Dancingand the memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets. She is currently working on a novel set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Next: Dreams from My Father

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